The ongoing Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic is changing our world in unprecedented ways. In this new series of conversations with movers and shakers from both Japan and elsewhere, we’re taking a look at how the pandemic is already transforming city life and what changes are still on the horizon. Hoping to find out what’s to come for society, daily life and the environment, and eager to hear how urban space will accommodate and leverage the ‘new normal’, we’ve lined up interviews with experts from a wide range of fields. This time we’re getting new perspectives from Taku Yamada, CEO of the Chura-boshi company, which promotes eco-tourism and rediscovery of traditional lifestyles in the Gifu prefecture town of Hida-Furukawa.
This is part of the New Normal interview series. For the list of features, click here.
‘Chura-boshi, which I founded together with my wife, offers “Satoyama Experience” tours to visitors who want to experience traditional life in Hida, but we also support local companies looking to develop their business and train staff locally. More than 90 percent of our Satoyama Experience participants are non-Japanese, so we’ve had almost zero business from early March this year and had to cancel all of our tours after the state of emergency was declared in April.
‘Before the coronavirus crisis, about 80 percent of the 30 million foreign tourists visiting Japan came from other Asian countries. Almost all of our customers, however, were Westerners. Considering what the recovery of the tourism industry might look like after this crisis is over, we’ll probably see domestic tourism bounce back first and then Asian travellers returning, followed last by tourists from Europe and the Americas.
‘Consequently, we’re not expecting to get any foreign customers until a year from now, at the earliest. Many of the foreign travel agencies we’re working with have asked to postpone the tours they’ve booked for April this year to April next year, so we have fortunately started receiving some bookings for April and May 2021. Still, we’re hardly expecting next year’s spring to be as busy as spring 2019, and the one-year period before that will be even tougher. We are looking at a rethinking and rebuilding of our entire tourism business.
‘Our main challenge is to get more domestic tourists, who make up one tenth of our customer base, to come to Hida and try out our Satoyama Experiences. We’re gradually putting our two teams together; our business-to-business services such as business development and employee training, which I’ve been in charge of personally, and our Satoyama Experience team, will be united to build seamless services and offer new value to new customers within Japan. For example, we’re expanding into “workcations”, which will probably become more popular going forward. This could help create new demand for accommodation services in Hida, where there’s plenty of supply already, thereby contributing to the revitalisation of the entire region.
‘Personally, I think the effects of the coronavirus crisis on the tourism industry will not be entirely negative. We’ve already been seeing increased disruption caused by natural disasters, such as typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and abnormally warm winters. Thinking about how to deal with the coronavirus is obviously important, but it’s not as simple as just containing this virus: it’s about building resistance – or immunity, if you will – against any unpredictable events that may occur in the future. That sort of immunity is important not only for organisations, but for all of us as individuals.
‘When responding to the coronavirus crisis, I think the issue that all industries and companies have to address now is how to make the best possible use of the most fundamental resources: people, goods and capital. My company’s revenue streams have been cut off, so we’ve been forced to both look for alternative sources of revenue and reduce costs. It’s very simple: to earn revenue, we’re developing new business and approaching new customers, and to cut costs, we’ve taken a close look at all of our expenses from last year. We’re taking treatment-like measures that under normal circumstances hadn’t been necessary, but I think the true lesson to learn from the current crisis is how to use this experience to develop preventative measures for the long run.’
‘I doubt Japanese society and the economy will ever go back to what things were like before December 2019. Lifestyles, in particular, are bound to change.
‘First, I think the coronavirus crisis, even more so than the triple disasters of March 2011, has truly exposed the pitfalls of centralising all activity into big cities. Both me and my wife wanted to live close to nature, so we moved to Hida-Furukawa more than a decade ago. Ever since, I’ve become more and more convinced of the power of “real”, physical things. This place has rice, vegetables, clear water – everything you need to live. I feel like the concentration of everything into Tokyo, and the understanding that living in the big city is worth it in terms of income, social status, education and access to medical care, might be about to change.
‘That’s not to say that “the countryside” is the same everywhere. Places like Hida-Furukawa and Minami-Uonuma in Niigata prefecture are surrounded by mountains, making them very different from regional cities such as Kagoshima, Hiroshima and Fukuoka. I’ve been living in Hida for 13 years now, but people considered me crazy when I first moved here [laughs]. How many people will stand up against the long march of urbanisation and overcome the many hurdles that social forces raise in their way remains to be seen. On the other hand, whether the countryside lives or dies depends on the extent to which rural regions can become more attractive and build up the infrastructure required to welcome people looking to move away from the big cities.
‘I think consumer behaviour will change significantly, too. Personally speaking, both me and my wife are busy with our jobs, so we used to eat out a lot. That’s changed now that we’re staying home: our children look up recipes on our iPad for all of us to cook together. We’ve made things like pizza and soup dumplings, which made me notice that you can actually cook pretty much anything at home. The food we make may not compare to a professional chef’s, but the process of cooking together with the kids is something special in itself.
‘I thought our children would be eager to get back to school, but instead I happened to catch one of them writing “Every day [at home] is so much fun” in their diary [laughs]. Rather than worrying about how to make up for the things they would have learned at school, as a parent I’ve been focusing on the things we can do together as a family now that the kids aren’t going to school. I’m doing my best to make this situation a positive experience for them.
‘Staying home and doing the kind of things I just talked about obviously changes your outlook on how you spend money and live your life. Eating out used to be the norm for us, but now we’re more likely to stay in and try to make pizza dough from scratch.’
‘What will happen in the travel industry once the crisis is over? I think that question needs to be looked at in different ways depending on whether it’s global or domestic tourism we’re talking about, but I do predict that people will be eager to travel when the restrictions are lifted. But once the initial excitement fades, we’re likely to see the emergence of an ever more discerning market, in which people are increasingly value-conscious and have even more options than before.
‘As the economy is getting worse, we can’t deny the possibility that travel will become something of a luxury. People with the means to do so will pay for “real” experiences that offer added value, while free virtual tours may replace much lower-end travel. “Real” experiences may become rare indulgences, available only to those with excess time and money.
‘When dealing with discerning customers adamant about getting value for their money, service providers will have to offer a wide range of options to choose from. Unfortunately that means many providers will go out of business – a possibility that my company will also have to consider.
‘We have no choice but to emerge from this crisis stronger than before and build up the resistance required to survive future crises. The future can’t be something to be afraid of – it has to be something to look forward to.
‘I’ve always liked nature, and I continue to be impressed by wild animals. Many people consider us humans special because we can control things and rise above nature, but it’s precisely because we are bound by the rules of nature that we’re now faced with this terrible crisis. We shouldn’t seek to control everything, and instead take a positive view on the fate and position we find ourselves in. If this crisis leads to more people honestly seeking to solve the tasks at hand and go forward, I’m sure society will begin to transform in a positive direction.’
CEO of the Chura-boshi company, Cabinet Office Ambassador for Regional Revitalization, advisor on regional revitalisation for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, and advisor for the San’in Tourism Organization. Also operates the Satoyama Experience platform for foreign tourists looking to explore the Japanese countryside.
After leaving a career in consulting, Yamada spent two years travelling and learning about the global tourism industry before settling in Hida-Furukawa. He has produced a variety of solutions for regional revitalisation, including tourism that makes use of existing resources such as the local nature and traditional homes, and also runs a talent development business.
Yamada has been honoured with several awards, including the Japan Tourism Award for Business (2017), the Ministry of the Environment’s Eco-Tourism Award (2014), the Good Design Award (2013) and the Minister of the Environment's Commendation (2011). In recent years he has also taken on providing support and training employees for tourism business projects throughout rural Japan, and has written a book on how to promote countryside destinations to foreign tourists.